Last week, I reviewed The Book of Apex, Volume 4.
Today, as part of the Apex of Blog Book Tour, I have a guest post by one of the authors represented in the collection, Tim Susman. Tim wrote one of the most intriguing stories in the collection, “Erzulie Dantor” and in this post, he talks about some of his process behind penning this particular story. And the good news is that if you haven’t yet read the story, you can check it out for FREE!
Orders of Magnitude
In the last year, I wrote a couple thousand-word flash fictions, a few 10K-word short stories, and two hundred-thousand word novels. If pressed, I would probably say I enjoy novels the most. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with completing a long project, and of all the things I’ve written, the novels are the ones that have the most permanence. Still, I enjoy getting a flash-fic-sized idea, something I can write and hone in a couple days, something that gets a point across and then goes away; a short story can be an enticing visit to a world. In ten thousand words (technically a novelette, though I did write several short stories as well), you can introduce a world and a character and a problem and see the problem through to its resolution.
The way I approach each of these is necessarily different, and it doesn’t start the way you might think. When I have the idea for a story, usually the length is encoded in the idea. For the recent series of flash fics inspired by James Bond movie theme song titles (yes, that’s a thing), I tried to write the flash fics as spontaneously as possible, and that meant that I had to search for a flash-fic length idea. Sometimes they grew a little long—“Goldeneye” I think could be a bigger story if I wanted to expand it—but sometimes they ended up being neat little “what if” vignettes.
One of the dangers with flash fic is the allure of the “gotcha” ending. “‘My name is Jesus,’ the alien said.”—you know the kind of story. It’s a particularly tough ending to pull off in flash fiction because a twist ending depends on the reader having an investment in or expectation of the story, and a thousand words is often not enough to build up enough to make the twist worthwhile. What’s more, people are used to shorter pieces having twist endings, so if you telegraph that it’s a twist story, people will often outguess you, and then the story loses its punch. Of course, it could also be that I’m just not good at twist endings.
In a short story-sized idea, I start with a character and a problem and a world. The problem should be a smallish one, because it’s a smallish story, but it should be complex enough that it doesn’t have a flash-fiction sized resolution; or else the world should be detailed enough to hold the reader’s interest through a few thousand words. Short stories that fail to hold my interest usually don’t establish the character or the problem sufficiently up front. So I try to lay out something interesting in the first few paragraphs, something to let the reader know, “This is a character you’re going to want to follow,” or “This is a world you’re going to be engaged in.” In my short story “Erzulie Dantor,” published in Apex, I started with a description of Haiti following the earthquake and added the background of some supernatural beings.
In short stories, especially novelette-sized ones, you can (and should) look for opportunities for reversals—not twists, but ways of surprising the reader by revealing something that casts the world or the character in a new light, adding to what’s come before rather than invalidating it. If you’re writing from a first-person or tight third, those can be surprises to the character as well. I sold a story last year about a gay nobleman’s son sent to a wizard’s “gay cure” camp that follows him very tightly through all the surprises of the story, and the reader finds out what’s really going on at the same time he does. This kind of storytelling gives the reader tighter sympathy with the character, because they’re both surprised at the same time, and the reader becomes more interested in how the character will find his way out of this new problem or react to this new information. Using something the character has known all along and simply not revealed to the reader is often viewed (rightly, I think) as a cheat.
When you expand another tenfold and reach a novel-length idea, here you have a far more detailed examination of a character. I still look for a central problem, but in this case I also want to explore the character’s background, to find out why she is the way she is and why this is such an important problem for her. The novel should also present opposing or alternate points of view, but it’s best to embody these in the person of the adversary or other allies, because what sticks with people, I’ve found, is the characters in novels. People will remember certain scenes, but those scenes have weight because they’ve spent time with the characters and have gotten to know them. I can think of very few short stories/novelettes I remember with as much fondness and weight as my favorite novels (Connie Willis’s “Last of the Winnebagoes” is one of them).
Last year, I actually set out to write a short story and ended up with a novel. It happened like this: I have written a lot (under another name) about young gay kids standing up for themselves, and that’s how this story started, with a kid facing a couple bullies and running away. I thought, this is a story with an easy arc: he runs off, he talks to someone and realizes that he has to stand up for himself, he confronts the bullies and reaches some kind of new happy confidence. Scene, curtain. But I got about three thousand words into the story and faced a decision point: I could wrap the story the way I’d conceived of it, and be done with it, or I had the chance to expand it into something more.
As I said, I’ve written a lot about this particular story, and following it down that arc felt, if not boring, at least predictable and unremarkable. I’d set the story in a European city (my version of Europe inhabited by animal-people) and had been almost as focused on describing the mix of old and new in the city my character was running through as the character himself. And I thought, what if he goes back in time?
That wasn’t just a device to make the setting more interesting. The stakes for being gay in the present time can be high—social ostracism, loss of family, questioning of self—but for this guy, none of those except the first were on the table, and I’d established that he had gay friends. So where were his stakes? If we shove him back five hundred years in time, the penalty for being gay is mutilation and eventually death, so it will mean a lot more when (SPOILER) he learns to stand up for himself. But now I have to establish another world and establish his character more firmly as someone who just lets things happen to him, and then slowly put him into a situation where he has to go against the easy way out. Now it’s no longer ten thousand words. Now it’s a novel. And indeed, the first draft of the novel came out neatly just under a hundred thousand words.
Hopefully this is instructive if you’re wondering how some people–one in particular–go about writing flash fics, short stories, or novels.